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Police use of Amazon’s facial recognition software alarms civil liberties group

Two US police forces are among the customers of Amazon’s facial recognition software, causing concern among civil liberties activists.

Rekognition is a machine learning pattern-matching tool for video and photographs which Amazon says enables “real-time face recognition across tens of millions of faces, and detection of up to 100 faces in challenging crowded photos.”

Civil rights group the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU) says Rekognition has been used by police departments in the state of Oregon and the city of Orlando, Florida since last year, despite the misgivings of staff and apparently with little or no public consultation. In what Orlando’ police chief called a “first-of-its-kind public-private partnership” Amazon has also been offering free consultancy in its deployment and use.

“Washington County [Oregon] has since built a database of at least 300,000 mugshot photos to use in coordination with Rekognition. It also built a mobile app for its deputies to quickly scan for a match against the county’s database by submitting images obtained from surveillance or other sources,” the ACLU says.

Amazon is actively marketing the surveillance technology to law enforcement despite CEO Jeff Bezos’ past criticisms of government overreach in the realm of data. Bezos was critical of the US government’s attempts to force Microsoft to hand over data stored on a server in Ireland, for example.

Rekognition’s ability to identify individuals through photos and video in real-time makes it a powerful tool for tracking people. Amazon’s website openly describes its potential for surveillance.

“With Rekognition Video, you can track each person within a shot and through the video across shots,” it says. “Rekognition Video detects persons even when the camera is in motion and, for each person, returns a bounding box and the face, along with face attributes and timestamps. For security and surveillance applications, this makes investigation and monitoring of individuals easy and accurate”.

The obvious concern is that it will be used by the authorities to keep track of citizens engaged in lawful protests and demonstrations and used to target undesirable elements, however those might be defined, with a consequent chilling effect on democratic rights. The ACLU asked the two police departments for details of any public consultations held before the system was rolled out and about any safeguards in place to prevent abuse, but the details were sketchy – in part because one of them had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Amazon.  

People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government,” write lawyers for the ACLU. “By automating mass surveillance, facial recognition systems like Rekognition threaten this freedom, posing a particular threat to communities already unjustly targeted in the current political climate. Once powerful surveillance systems like these are built and deployed, the harm will be extremely difficult to undo.”

The organisation has launched a petition calling on Amazon to “get out of the surveillance business”.

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